The secret to making it in the art world? Learn to schmooze.
A handful of U.S. and European museums and galleries have an outsize impact on which contemporary artists achieve lasting, prestigious careers and which don’t, according to a Northeastern University study published Thursday in the journal Science.
New artists who show their work early in a relatively small network of 400 venues—like Gagosian Gallery or the Guggenheim Museum—are all but guaranteed a successful art career, the study said. By contrast, artists who exhibit mainly in lower-level galleries and midtier institutions are likely to remain stuck in that orbit.
“There’s this invisible network of trust that exists in the art world, but the group that decides who matters in art was considerably smaller and more powerful than we expected,” said Albert-László Barabási, a data scientist who studies networks at Northeastern and led the study along with several colleagues including a data scientist now at the World Bank, Samuel Fraiberger. Their findings also show up in Dr. Barabási’s book published earlier this week, “The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success.”
His findings undermine a popular art-world notion that a prodigy could create in obscurity and get discovered years later. Instead, the research suggests that artists who start out seeking connections with powerful curators, dealers and collectors within the nerve center of the art world are far more likely to hit the big time.
Dr. Barabási and his team spent the past three years reconstructing the exhibition histories of nearly 500,000 artists, whose work was shown in about 16,000 galleries and 7,500 museums between 1980 and 2016. He and his team also scoured sales held in 1,239 global auction houses from the same 36-year time period.
They used this data to help trace the paths that artists took early in their careers, tracking how one who earned a spot on the roster of Gallery A subsequently got exhibited in Museum B and then Museum C, for example. Dr. Barabási analyzed the overlapping connections and mapped the institutions that proved key in helping the most artists succeed in the long run—or not.
The result is a formula Dr. Barabási said can predict which artists working now, based on their connections within this network, are more likely to become superstars.
“If one of your first five shows as an artist is held at a gallery in the heart of this network, the chances of your ending your career on the fringes is 0.2%,” Dr. Barabási said. “The network itself will protect you because people talk to each other and trade each other’s shows.”
So who makes up the nucleus of this network? The list skews toward U.S. institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. European museums include the Haus der Kunst in Munich and Tate in London. Dealers include Paula Cooper as well as galleries with multiple locations and sizable operations like Pace Gallery, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner.
Magnus Resch, an economist who teaches at Columbia University and who helped Dr. Barabási gather the data, said he was devastated by the findings because they suggest that myriad galleries outside this hub have little impact, no matter the quality of the art they show or sell.
“The art world prides itself on being so open and inclusive, but the truth is the opposite,” Mr. Resch said.
The study also maps out so-called islands on the network’s periphery, populated by galleries and museums in places like Germany, Australia and parts of Asia that appear insular to a fault. For example, Germany is replete with noncollecting museums called kunsthalles that organize many shows featuring young artists, but Dr. Barabási said his research revealed that few of these venues wound up swapping artists with the influential museums that ultimately determine an artist’s success.
“The conduit to bigger success isn’t there,” he said, though he conceded there were likely exceptions.
The network also benefits artists who live in cities with thriving art markets like New York and London. Of the artists tracked in the study who were born in the U.S., a quarter earned spots in highly prestigious venues, compared with 11% of artists in Canada and 9.2% of artists in India.
The network isn’t defined solely by geography, though. Galleries physically located near MoMA weren’t necessarily more influential than ones in San Francisco or Shanghai, the study found. In some respects, Dr. Barabási said it mattered more for an artist to get a show at a major, encyclopedic museum like the Art Institute of Chicago than a buzzy, contemporary art museum.
That’s because the Art Institute shows fewer living artists, and so it “has more heft,” he said. So far this year, the Chicago museum has opened shows featuring a dozen living artists. Last year, it showed eight.
James Rondeau, director of the Art Institute, said he remains skeptical of success metrics in the art world, but added that he wonders if the research could nudge curators out of ruts they might be in when it comes to scouring for talent.
“Maybe we can use it to give voice to those disenfranchised artists outside the trajectory,” Mr. Rondeau said. “We need to use our eyes as much as our ears.”
Write to Kelly Crow at firstname.lastname@example.org